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Virtual trade shows offer real results

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Marketers are finding new opportunities beyond traditional trade show advertising as conference organizers move their events out of the convention hall and onto the Internet.

These online replicas of site-based trade shows allow exhibitors to keep their booths open around the clock -- and sometimes all year -- without the expenses associated with traditional exhibits such as travel, lodging, entertainment and convention hall charges.

More importantly, marketers are finding these exhibits are an inexpensive way to expand their reach by increasing exposure among new prospects and customers worldwide, advertising products and services in real time, and generating leads and sales.

COST-EFFICIENT

Kent Barnes, national sales rep for Charlotte, N.C.-based Strickland Enterprises, compares the cost of exhibiting his company's fire truck equipment at Raleigh-based National Fire & Rescue magazine's two-day virtual Fire & Rescue Expo to that of placing an ad in a trade publication.

For less than $1,000, Strickland had the opportunity to reach the more than 250,000 attendees of the live weekend event, and Mr. Barnes said he received inquiries from as far away as Nova Scotia.

"That's a lot more people than I could reach with an ad, and we probably reached a lot of people who we wouldn't typically find at a local or even national trade show," he says.

By some estimates, more than 200 trade shows now have a presence on the World Wide Web. This is just a small percentage of the current trade show market, which Los Angeles-based Tradeshow Week's "Tradeshow Week Data Book" puts at 4,000-plus trade shows, conferences and seminars in the U.S. and Canada in 1997.

Still, virtual trade shows are expected to generate $100 million in annual revenue by 1998, according to virtual trade show producer Virtual Broadcast Co., San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

IMPACTING SHOW INDUSTRY

"This technology is having a significant impact on the trade show industry," says Tom Mitchell, managing partner of Atlanta-based Virtual On-Line Trade Show Co., which is one of the new companies cropping up that, like traditional conference organizers, produce virtual shows.

"Because [trade show] producers are trying to make their events more meaningful to exhibitors and attendees alike, online shows held in conjunction to site-based events will be standard procedure in the future for the shows that survive," Mr. Mitchell said.

The scope and sophistication of each site varies with the interactive offerings and technology used. Some organizations use the Internet as an adjunct to their live events and offer attendees pre-registration, seminar handouts, exhibitor information and details on local hotels, dining and entertainment.

Others use all of today's Internet technology to offer audio and video clips of keynote addresses, downloadable seminar handouts, live chat sessions, networking parties and interactive exhibit halls where "attendees" can request product listings, brochures and catalogs and place orders.

HOW ONE COMPANY BENEFITS

International medical supply manufacturer and distributor Graham-Field, Hauppauge, N.Y., is one of hundreds of companies benefiting from these virtual trade shows.

Graham-Field is a regular exhibitor at the annual Medtrade conference, one of the largest shows for the home healthcare profession, attracting 1,200 exhibiting companies and more than 30,000 people annually.

But this year, Graham-Field and 50 other exhibitors also bought "booths" on the convention organizer's new Web site, Medtrade Online.

"We decided to put the booth online because of the changes in the marketplace," says Agatha Golonkiewicz, marketing creative director for Graham-Field. "Many of our competitors are going online, and we wanted to keep in pace."

"The site provides a real-time solution for exhibitors to stay in touch with their customers all year long, updating them on product development, enhancements and sales specials," says Mark Simmering, exec VP-chief operations officer for Atlanta-based Semco Productions, which along with Virtual On-Line Trade Show organizes Medtrade Online.

While all Medtrade exhibitors are included in an online database, online exhibit space is available only to those who purchase booths at the live event.

Graham-Field's exhibit includes product listings, photographs and contact information. Visitors can also click on a regional map to access any one of 60 local sales representatives.

Because Graham-Field doesn't have its own Web site, the $1,900 annual fee it pays for its online exhibit space seemed like a simple, cost-effective way to create a de facto site, says Ms. Golonkiewicz.

By comparison, for the three-day live event, companies pay $23 per square foot, or $2,300 for a traditional 10-square-foot booth.

Medtrade Online generated nearly 50,000 hits last quarter.

12,000 HITS DAILY

Another company that's finding extra benefits from its virtual exhibit is Philadelphia-based Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group's Chemical Process Industry Group, which is using its exhibit at the ChemExpo site as a relationship-building vehicle.

"We are trying to create dialogue with visitors," says Larry Mickelberg, marketing and operations coordinator. "We also want to engage people in a non-threatening way and then get prospects to proceed through the sales cycle."

The ChemExpo site launched March 1996 and is generating 12,000 hits each day.

This story originally ran in the June 1997 issue of Business Marketing.

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